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Dire Dawa seeks harmony as ethnic tensions run high

Sunday April 14, 2019

Photo by Frédéric Garnier

At a recent public meeting organised by the newly nominated city mayor, a young woman who lives in Mermasa area of Dire Dawa depicts a city that is going through a period of polarizing tension and widespread anxiety. Her message, which can be viewed on YouTube, describes the tensions, injustice, and police brutality in the city once known for its harmonious cohabitation. Appreciating first the gestures of the new officials who came to talk to them, the Somalia woman said with the current atmosphere, ordinary disputes between individuals are automatically taking ethnic dimensions. “Why it is the case is beyond me. The government has to work on exploring the root causes of it. We have lived here long interacting with each other, coexisting pretty peacefully. Somalis, Oromo, Amhara and many others lived together,” she said.

The young woman said the police officers themselves are resorting to excessive, vindictive punishment in controlling disorders. “There are offenders, most of them young people, from all sides. When they get arrested, I could understand the need for strict punishment so that it could become an educative tool, but why would the police kick and hit them in the kidneys and the genitals,” she asked rhetorically, with applause from the public.

Despite its reputation of being a cosmopolitan and welcoming city, Dire Dawa, located 531km east of Addis Ababa and 55km north-west of Harar, has seen a rise in ethnic conflicts in recent years that have led to multiple fatalities, partly over the long-standing claim by both the Oromia Region, in which it is enclaved, and the Somali region. On November 27, 2018 it was reported that two Oromo ethnic members were killed and four residential houses belonging to Somali ethnic groups torched, after clashes between Oromo and Somali youths. The town was also the scene of violent riots towards the end of January 2019, triggered by a scuffle at the celebration of Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church’s Epiphany. The mayor’s supposed inaction in dealing with the agitators added fuel to the flames, it is said. Roads have been blocked in the week-long standoff, during which a person died, several wounded, properties damaged and many young people arrested.

In Melka Jebdu, the northwest part of the town and other areas such as Gende Tesfa, Gende Commission, Gende Gemechu, Magaala, Sabian, there have been a string of episodes of ethnic conflict. Ethnic relations here have deteriorated to a level that many find alarming, clashes in one part of the city could set off a chain of reprisal riots and attacks in other parts of the city. Rock throwing has become a common occurrence, residents said. The conflict was continuously smouldering, spurred by inequalities, a lack of economic development, access to resources, and ineffectual leadership. Many accuse the administration of championing divisive politics and only dealing with the interests of members of their own ethnic group.

Dire Dawa has been an important trading centre and a prosperous city, since it is halfway between Djibouti and Addis Ababa and stands at the crossroads of Harar and Assab. However, as the railway has declined and train service has reduced two decades ago, the city has continued to decline, contributing to the dissatisfaction of its residents. The deadly ethnic clashes between ethnic Somalia and Oromo in the border area that broke out in the past three years has also added an atmosphere of distrust and insecurity in the city. Even after the removal and arrest of the Somalia region’s president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known by his nickname ‘Abdi Iley’ in August 2018, pockets of his supporters reportedly continued to create havoc in Dire Dawa, according to some version.

Photo by Frédéric Garnier

Another major source of contention is the ethnic-based power-sharing formula, known as 40:40:20 put in place since 2006, according to which executive power share between Oromo and Somalia and the rest 20 percent goes to other ethnic groups. The mayor post has been rotating between Oromo and Somali. (According to 1994 census, the ethnic composition of this council is 48 % Oromo, 27 % Amhara, 13.9 % Somali and 4.5 % Guraghe.) This formula was originally intended to ensure that the interests of all ethnic groups are represented and power and wealth are fairly shared. But major questions about its application and how to balance the many competing interests still dog the residents. Mulugeta Gezahegn, a columnist for the Amharic weekly Maleda wrote that the increasing party infighting between the Oromo and Somali party and other parties have put the rights and privileges of the city’s residents at stake. The ethnic relation could become more tense with the coming election, he wrote. The deteriorating standard of living, youth unemployment and a lack of opportunities in the city are complicating the condition, setting in for a sense of cynicism and despondency, observers say. Misleading news reports and partisan media coverage have also fuelled tensions. One frequently cited claim on social media is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke at a public meeting saying that Dire Dawa belongs to Oromia region, but this quotation seems to have been entirely fabricated and no record of it could be found, multiple sources say.

The city administration says it is undertaking a massive reform program to improve accountability and infrastructures. One project that the city authorities are relying on to create jobs for the city is the Chinese-commissioned Dire Dawa Industrial Park, which is expected to host investors in textile, leather sectors, and construction input, possibly creating employment opportunities to about 40,000 people.

The reform work, which also include federal government officials, including a team formed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, led by Tefera Derbew, former minister of agriculture, and Meles Alemu Hirboro, former minister of mines, is working on a solution to resolve communal clashes in the city’s administration and resolve underlying issues behind the recurrent conflicts and issues of power-sharing arrangements. There have been several meetings with residents, in which issues of justice, fair share of wealth, corruption of officials, were raised. The administration officials also have undertaken evaluation (‘gimegema‘), who at the conclusion admitted a lack of cohesion for the failure of the administration to deliver some of its promises and lack of motivation in implementing the overall reform going in the country. The embattled mayor of the city, Ibrahim Ousman, was made to resign from his post in mid-March and was replaced by Mahadi Gire, who assumed the position as deputy mayor, who promised to do his best to improve the situation, to sweep away corruption and make administration more accountable. Whether those promises would be transformed into reality, it remains to be seen. The lasting solution would be to consolidate peace through reconciliation through either the indigenous mechanisms or modern political initiative, others say.


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